Wednesday 13 December 2017 / 05:25 PM

EPL MATCHDAY 15 PRIMER: NINE CRUCIAL QUESTIONS

Running through the most pressing questions around the league in preparation for Matchday 15 as the EPL schedule hits fast-forward

Should I care more about Burnley?

Yes. Yes, you absolutely should.

They pushed Arsenal for 90 minutes and were unlucky to concede a penalty and not walk away with a point. They’ve given each of the top sides they’ve faced a run (taking away five points) and continue to punish lower opponents. Getting so close against a top side is painful, and usually, a devastating blow like that will carry over and often impact their next game. No sir, Burnley got back to basics and were back on the grind, pulling out another hallmark win against Bournemouth midweek. That resilience is perhaps the best way to illustrate how Burnley do business, and why they are a joy to watch each week.

They are the best defensive-oriented team in the Premier League, and are without doubt the best talent-to-output performers in football right now. If we grade the teams on the scale of synergy, working to become more than the sum of your parts, the Clarets have been the best ‘team’ in the PL. Their upcoming fixture with Leicester is must-see action.

Give Burnley some love, they’ve earned it.

Is Raheem Sterling, like, a legitimately good player now?

Consistency was never Sterling calling card. Pace, energy and positioning would all get thrown out there, but the main descriptor was always potential. Sterling always possessed the ability, but finding a way to remain effective whilst churning out consistent performances had, up until this point, eluded him. Not anymore.

We should have seen this coming. Guardiola either extracts maximum value out of his players or moves them along. City were obviously keen on adding Alexis Sanchez, but were hesitant to part ways with Sterling to get the deal done. What a great call that turned out to be: the clutchest performing player in the division, Sterling has now singlehandedly won City three games with late, game-winning goals – including two in the space of four days. He is enjoying undoubtedly the best season of his career, netting nine times and adding two assists (in nine starts) and another four goals in five starts in the Champions League. Mohamed Salah leads the goal count with 12, and Raheem has still been far and away the best player at his position.

The two most surprising improvements have been his patience on the ball and the refining of his touch. Both qualities were clear deficiencies in his game, but we’ve seen him expand his repertoire of skills which has opened up new areas for him to attack. At the start of the season, nobody, maybe not even Sterling himself, would believe he would be doing this:

Poise on the ball, vision, awareness and a classy, spectacular finish to match. It felt like this version of Sterling may never arrive, but when the ball was at his feet with the game on the line, it felt like the right move, and actually seemed feasible that this might happen. Obviously it’s a small sample size, but it appears Sterling has made his superstar turn.

Are the Terriers in trouble?

Holding serve against City, one of the finest attacking outfits in modern football, was a good way to bounce back from a brutal 4-0 loss against Bournemouth, but following it up with an equally as painful beatdown at the hands of Arsenal, who put five past them, was another stark reminder that character and tenacity can only take you so far.

Huddersfield need to find a stable, reliable system or things will get problematic, and fast. They’ve gone from eighth to only five points from relegation in four weeks, such is life in the ultra-competitive Premier League. With Everton up next, expect a spirited bounce-back effort, but whether they can get turn their form around after three consecutive losses might decide the trajectory of the rest of the year.

Should we be concerned that Man United conceded twice to Watford?

Yes, and not at all.

Name the consistent standout qualities of Manchester United in 2017 so far. We are now 14 games into the competition, and the question surrounding United centres around the same problem that held them back last season. Their team is loaded with talent, and with Pogba back on deck, they look as dangerous and dynamic as they did early in the season. But they lack identity – a fallback to get carry them through tough circumstances.

When constructing this squad, they were assembling brilliance first, and worrying about fit later. That shines through in some performances, and their very best showings of the year have all come from whipping the ball around the field and overpowering weaker opposition. In other words, winning with talent. When you have this many world-class players, there aren’t many teams better. But in their two games against top-tier opponents — Liverpool and Chelsea (exclude Tottenham, who were undermanned) — United have failed to net a goal and looked a shell of themselves. A timely test will come on Sunday against an ever-improving Arsenal, and we’ll get a better feel for how they stack up to the top tier of the division.

Many believed that their defence was their calling card, but the Watford showing proved otherwise. Reflecting on their results, it appears that they have to be either offensively inclined and sacrifice defence or knuckle down and limit their attacking presence. Balance wins titles, and they’ve yet to flash even a hint of it. There is no through line to connect any of their wins, in any competitions — that is concerning. Through that lens, yes conceding twice to Watford is problematic.

On the other hand, Watford are a good football team. Even with that loss, they sit comfortably at eighth with four points on the team below, boast the sixth-best attacking record and have already shown their big-game chops, drawing with Liverpool and beating Arsenal — they shouldn’t just be dismissed as a mid-table team. They attack relentlessly, which lends itself to a high-scoring, open game, and can force oppositions to match their intensity or get left behind. Watford face an equally telling test against Tottenham, who are most comfortable pressing high and improve when they face attack-orientated sides.

The limits of their system will be shown, but the success it has against other, equally talented opposition, and the goal return thus far suggests that they are far better than expected and aren’t to be taken lightly. And United beat them 4-2, so in that case no, we shouldn’t be concerned. The real repercussions of this result will be clearer with hindsight.

Is there any hope for Everton?

Like Everton, the answer to this question isn’t going to make much sense. Right now the Toffees are like a house cat that was raised with cheetahs. They might not be as fast and look a little different to everyone else, but that’s just them.

They’ve always believed they were a good team, and just because a few people started questioning whether they are what they think they are, doesn’t mean they should abandon ship, right? And hey, they can win big against the bad teams, because they aren’t one, right? They just beat West Ham 4-0! Leicester couldn’t do that.

There is hope for Everton as long as they still believe they are a cheetah, because trying to keep up will make them run faster than they would have, and maybe extract a little extra value out of a pretty bland roster. But eventually the cat gets tired, and then it falls behind. The question isn’t if, but when.

Who is the best player you’re not watching?

That would be Crystal Palace’s 21-year-old forward Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the shining light through the club’s dire season to date. The Chelsea loan player has been phenomenal in attack for the league’s bottom-placed team. One of the EPL’s most ferocious counter-attackers, RLC is a sight to behold at full stretch, and he alone is worth giving Palace a watch.

Have Leicester turned the corner?

Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Tottenham felt like a breakthrough, but truthfully Leicester have been on the upward swing since replacing Craig Shakespeare in October. Results haven’t done the Foxes justice thus far, and their schedule hasn’t allowed them to get into a groove. Pulling out results like this remind us of what they are capable of when they get things right — when the defence is active and flexible, and Vardy and Mahrez dominate on the counter. But that comes on the heels of a disappointing draw against West Ham, a fixture they absolutely should have won. Games like that remind us how prone they are to getting into an wrestling match with no finish line in mind.

Next on the docket is Burnley, which regardless of which way it goes, will do nothing to confirm or deny what we think or feel about Leicester. The outcome may remind us of the different shades of their game, but the substance continues to suggest they are far better than what they been able to convert into wins. We need to see them bump up their goal differential (still -1, about six or seven points too low) to confirm they can hang around the chase for the Europa spots – but believe they are better than their record.

Is Manchester City ‘invincible’?

No. This might be the most frustrating consensus belief floating around the league. They’ve been historically good, but it hasn’t been without adversity. They required last-minute goals to get past Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Southampton, all of which came after the opposition were unlucky not to convert on the other end. They barely got past Chelsea and drew with Everton.

If any of those results swing the other direction, we’re having a totally different conversation. Eight points is a fantastic lead and a solid platform to build a championship run off, but we’re barely a third of the way through the season. A few average weeks and they fall back to the field.

If they manage the impossible task of matching Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ and remain unbeaten, we’ll celebrate it then. For now, appreciate their greatness and stop declaring a winner in November – it’s absolutely senseless.

Will Tottenham ever make ‘the leap’

They were so close. Their loss to Arsenal should have been a speed bump, a wake-up call that their just slightly behind where they need to be. All they needed was a slight adjustment, move away from the deep-set passing offence and trust their defence.

They followed that up by taking one point away from meetings with Leicester and West Bromwich Albion, where they fell deep into the issues that continue to hold them back. It isn’t good enough — the team who commandingly beat Real Madrid and Borissia Dortmund simply shouldn’t draw with West Brom — and they enter a danger game with Watford sitting seventh.

Knowing Spurs, they’ll probably win 5-0 and look the best they have all season. Right now, they are too far from the platform to even consider taking a leap, and that in itself is disappointing.

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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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