English Premier League Sees Battle At Both Ends As Season Comes To Close
SALT LAKE CITY – As the English Premier League heads towards its impending conclusion, we’re seeing the battle at both ends of the table turn up the excitement levels.
Manchester City and Liverpool don’t look like dropping points, and the Citizens vital point lead over Liverpool could well be the decider in this hotly contested two-horse race. At the other end, Watford and Norwich, unfortunately, look doomed to Championship soccer next season, although, in fairness, they aren’t down yet, but they have to pick up wins and are looking for favors from other teams to help them get out of the mire. And it’s looking like the third team to be relegated will be Burnley, Everton or Leeds.
Leeds United v. Manchester City
KSL 5 gets the EPL premiere match on Saturday, kicking off at 10:30 a.m. and live from Elland Road. It’ll be an encounter that has everything to play for, but for very different reasons.
Leeds have had a difficult second season back in the Premier League, after entertaining everyone last season the wheels came off earlier this season, as injuries, teams getting to grips with how Leeds play and the refusal of (one of my favorite maverick coaches) Marcelo Bielsa to tweak things tactically and then add the fact he chose to have a smaller squad, ultimately led to his dismissal in late February.
American Jesse Marsch took over the reins the day after, and it has to be said, he’s settled in quickly and effectively. After starting his tenure with two losses, he’s gone on to be unbeaten in his last five games, winning three and drawing two. The return of a couple of players has helped his cause for sure, with deep-lying midfielder Kalvin Philips being a pivotal player in the resurgence. Although his reintroduction has been managed minutes wise, his influence in the engine room has seen Leeds be more disciplined in the middle and given the back four more protection, it’s no surprise they’ve conceded just the once in the three games he’s been involved with (one start) after his long absence through injury. The England International will likely move come season’s end, regardless of where Leeds ends up. He’s an England international and the fact he is an exceptional two-way player will make him hot property, particularly for English teams. His all-action displays with tough-tackling, pressing and then a vision and passing range that makes you think he could be a #10 play-maker type, he has performed consistently for his hometown club, and he’ll be charged with hurrying and harassing Man City danger man, Kevin De Bruyne.
City comes into the tie off the back of a thrilling 4-3 victory midweek over Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal first leg. It was utterly enthralling, as you watch two teams go for it. Attacking for 90 minutes, as they traded blows. Back and forth. All I can say is, can we have more next week?
City may well rotate a couple of players for this game, but whoever comes in will be of real quality as the most expensively assembled squad continues to navigate the EPL and Champions League. They’ll once again look to dominate the ball, they’ll suffocate their opponent and won’t let up the pressure, and it doesn’t matter the opposition, home or away, City will 95 percent of the time have more of the ball. They are fast and smooth, moving between lines with good movement and then also breaking lines when carrying the ball. They will move the ball with small passes and create angles for each other. Right now they don’t play with a true central striker, and the front three are interchangeable which causes gaps for onrushing midfielders, and havoc for opposing defenders and their duties to handle the spacing of where they’re supposed to be. It almost sounds horrendous to say that we as viewers just see it as normal now, but this team and the work Guardiola has done to develop this team’s style is fun to watch, and far from normal. One player that could well get a start, and certainly needs to live up to his price tag, is Jack Grealish. There is no doubting his talent and at Villa he would regularly put the team on his back. He’s a strong dribbler of the ball, decent pace, and can certainly create opportunities for himself or for others. The real issue for Grealish is his understanding of his role in Pep’s team. At times he looks lost at where he’s supposed to be. That said, he is an entertainer, and if it can click and be more comfortable for him, then he’ll be an excellent threat moving forward.
Prediction: Marsch has had a week to prepare his team, and that is something they will be. He is meticulous in his approach, and anyone that watched his Salzburg team in the Champions League will know they never embarrassed themselves. Going from dominating the Austrian league on the weekend and then adapting to CL to punch above their weight to give everyone a tough match. Of course this is different, but I certainly think City will be made to work for all three points, but the quality City possesses will ensure they do walk away with maximum points.
West Ham United v. Arsenal
Sunday’s all-London match-up should be a feisty affair. The 9:30 a.m. kick on USA/Telemundo is one to keep an eye on, with West Ham trying to keep their very slim Champions League qualifying hopes alive, or at the very least leapfrog Manchester United, while Arsenal look to strengthen their grip on 4th place, and maybe even close the gap to 3rd placed Chelsea. West Ham is also in the midst of an enthralling battle with Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League semifinals.
West Ham have impressed the last couple of seasons, and their settled lineup approach has served them very well. Moyes is well known throughout his career to not overly tinker with his teams. However this term, and a lengthy European run has pushed this squad to max capacity. It’s been a successful season, whatever happens from now until the end of the season. Moyes has fully integrated his style and ideas into this squad. They might be just one top goal scorer away from pushing over that Champions League qualifying line, but defensively they’re deep and organized. The central midfield two of Tomas Souček (who is the positionally disciplined one) and Declan Rice, who has developed into a very good box-to-box type central midfielder have made the Hammers a well-balanced team. The danger man Jarrod Bowen will be the man to keep an eye on. He’s taken to the Premier league almost seamlessly since his arrival from Hull in January 2020. His 9 goals and 8 assists are both club highs this season. His direct wing play, with good speed and excellent movement and then the end product, has seen him lined up with other clubs and even mentioned as a future international England call-up. If Nuno Tavares lines up at left-back for Arsenal, Bowen will fancy his chances to add to his stat column, as the young Portuguese player has been a little erratic defensively.
That said, Arsenal is flying right now. When the Gunners lost on the road to Southampton, I thought it was an advantage to bitter rivals, Spurs for the final Champions League place, but Spurs stuttered; and then Arsenal went to Chelsea and won 4-2; and then Arsenal played Manchester United a few days later, running out 3-1 winners. Arsenal are riding out the season on the back of their young players. The likes of Ødegaard, Saka, Smith-Rowe, Martinelli and Nketiah have shown up some of the more experienced players in the squad. Their fearless, quick and inventive style along with the desire to grasp their opportunity has seen Arsenal take advantage of the other teams around them who are being a little more inconsistent or downright terrible. While credit is due for Arteta, I still want to see more from him. Recruitment like always will be massive for Arsenal this summer, and whilst it’s not solely down to him, he and the recruitment decision-makers have been hit and miss at times. In a sport that can be so unforgiving when you make the slightest mistake, Arteta and co are facing a massive off-season ahead of them. That said, if he can keep the young guns firing and progressing, and he, as a manager, improves as well, then the journey could be a fun one.
Prediction: I really think it’ll have a proper London derby feel with a ferocious atmosphere, plenty of fouls and yellow cards. Both teams have quality going forward, with Arsenal probably being a little more exciting in their approach. Defensively though, West Ham are a much better unit, even though Arsenal has a better goals against stat, but the Hammers are a cohesive unit. It’s easy to say one game at a time, but West Ham will have thoughts on how to overturn a 2-1 deficit in Frankfurt next week and try to make it to the Europa League final. Arsenal has the momentum in the league, and I fully expect them to run out winners at London Stadium on Sunday.
That’s it for this week, we’ll be back next week. We will know who made it to the Champions League and Europa League finals. And maybe a clearer picture in the Premier League title race.