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armchair centre back :: premier league over and under

leicester's secret weapon: 4-armed players
that title might sound like it's a betting guide, but there's no way i'd tell you to place bets on anything this year in the premier league, unless it's on diego costa continuing to be an asshole, which is always a safe wager.

yes, it's been a weird and wobbly season thus far, and the only team that hasn't wobbled, leicester city, are in the pole position to win the league. [and if you placed a bet on that at the beginning of the year, make sure you collect it as soon as possible, before your betting shop goes bankrupt.] but whatever the bookies are making of this season [likely a scaffold from which to hang themselves], a lot of fans and the television giants who ponied up multiple billions of dollars to secure the league's television rights are rolling around on floors worldwide, frothing at the mouth in sheer ecstasy that such a perfectly corny hollywood underdog story could be possible.

hell, even if leicester slip up in the home stretch, they would still have gone from 20th position and all-but-certain relegation last spring to second place and champions league qualification this year. and the team most likely to overtake them is tottenham hotspur, usually the whipping boys of the top tier clubs. spurs don't have anything like the financial clout of the manchester teams, chelsea or their archrivals arsenal. but they strut like they belong with the big boys and this year, apparently, they do. much of their talent is young and home-grown [the team featured at this year's uefa euro would look pretty meagre without tottenham's contributions] and quite young, which means that it's likely they'll have some staying power. so even the epl title backup plan is pretty cool. [unless you're a diehard arsenal fan.]

why, olivier? why?
things are just going to get weird in the summer, when big names looking for more playing time and intent on champions league football ask themselves questions like "paris st. germain or leicester?" but that's ages from now. until then, there are weeks of uncertainty and excitement for all of us except chelsea fans, who imploded so completely in the first half of the season that they are clinging to the faint hope that they might be able to qualify for the second tier of european competition, the europa league, if they can win a few more games, the teams ahead of them lose a few games and the outcome of the fa cup happens to turn in their favour.

so for the moment, i will content myself with a start-of-the-home-stretch list of people i've found over- and underrated thus far in the season.

i'll add that there are plenty of people who've lived up to their hype: arsenal's mesut özil is the playmaking genius everyone expected him to be now that he's settled in the premier league; liverpool's new manager jurgen klopp has turned the team around just through attitude adjustment and he is indeed the most charming thing in the sport: not for nothing did a german network plan to set up a "klopp cam", to be trained on him for the entire 90 minutes of their european game this week; after a somewhat weaker start, tottenham striker harry kane has silenced his critics, roaring back to the top of the goalscorer's list; and though he's clearly somewhat miserable at getting screwed out of the chance to play for real madrid, manchester united goalkeeper david de gea has sucked it up and kept his team from completely sucking. but there are a lot of cases where things just seem out of whack. these are my choices for the worst of them:

overrated :: louis van gaal

i know i'm not alone in this one. technically speaking, the team isn't faring so poorly: they're close to fourth, which would get them a playoff to enter the champion's league next season [which is what happened this season]. the technicality, however, is that they've spent the budget of a lot of small countries acquiring people who were supposed to be the best in the world and are just a few steps above running in circles and smacking into each other on the pitch. what's worse, united fans loathe his style he makes his team play: weighted towards defense, counting on a single goal to win a lot of games. these are fans who grew fat on the ferguson-era glut of goals. they want that ball to hit the net so hard it bleeds.

the team is apparently desperate enough for improvement that they're considering signing perpetual one-season wonder and notable antichrist jose mourinho, whose style is even more defensive and even less aggressive. that should make everybody happy.

underrated :: slaven bilic

slaven bilic is in no way plotting to kill your family
in all of the much-deserved frenzy over leicester's claudio ranieri, the starry-eyed clamour over jurgen klopp and the belated respect being given tottenham's mauricio pochettino, west ham's bilic has gotten a little lost. he was kind of a shock choice for manager, having no experience in a top european league, but he's been a revelation. his team, with a definite shortage of big names, is breathing down the necks of manchester united, and occasionally edged them out of the top five.

while he may have the sweet countenance of a mercenary black market arms dealer on the lam, bilic is actually a pretty damn cool person: he's a proud socialist, has a law degree and plays guitar in a rock band in his home country of croatia. it's his bad luck that his first season is one that's held so many big managerial surprises, or the season's story would be all about him.

mean man slaven is apparently about to stomp on my dreams with his mighty balkan boot, by bringing his former besiktas charge gökhan töre to join him in east london. töre was someone who caught my attention during europa league play last year and i'd been secretly hoping that he could be persuaded to join swansea city. [that's not to say i'm unhappy with either andre ayew or jefferson montero, but options never hurt.] nonetheless, he's a great young player [although sometimes a little murdery with his teammates] and it'll be nice to see him in the premier league.

overrated :: diego costa

sure, he's an excellent striker, but he's also a jackass who likes to start fights and play dirty. and i don't mind terribly when players stretch rules to their limits, hey, you never know how far you can go until you go too far. but costa isn't just cheating to win, he's looking to hurt people, which is really not an acceptable aim in a sport that's supposed to focus on kicking a ball. what's worse, referees seem to suffer from a permanent case of partial blindness where he's concerned, always being pointed in the other direction when he's punching, stomping, clawing or diving. he did recently get called on biting another player, but the bite itself was a pretty feeble imitation of luis suarez. and that's exactly what costa is. and at least suarez has a sense of humour about himself.

whatever you're asking, the answer is yes
underrated :: romelu lukaku

there were more than a few raised eyebrows when everton blew their entire transfer budget signing lukaku full-time [after a season-long loan] from chelsea, where jose mourinho didn't want him. but at this point, the 28 million they spent on the belgian is starting to look like a shrewd piece of business. everton have been less than impressive this season, but the extent of their struggles is somewhat hidden because lukaku just doesn't stop scoring goals. and, while it seems he's been around a while, he's only just 22 years old.

how good is he? his goalscoring stats are about the same as lionel messi's at his age. [and far outpace the record of his idol, didier drogba.] that good. while he may never be able to match messi's technical wizardry, he's remarkably nimble for a guy with the approximate dimensions of the berlin wall.

oh, and while it doesn't factor into my incredibly sophisticated method of determining over-ness and under-ness, he is way high on the man candy scale.

overrated :: raheem sterling

50 million f**king pounds. that's how much liverpool said they wanted for their nimble winger from manchester city and, after several attempts from the citizens at bargaining, that's exactly what they got. [actually, they got 50 million pounds plus james milner, who was out of contract at city and therefore available for free.] looking back on it, i'm willing to bet that team owner sheikh mansour rather wishes he'd simply dumped the money from an airplane into the etihad stadium, because it would have made the fans happier.

it's not that raheem isn't good, because he is. or he can be, when he wants. but a lot of the time he's a whiny, temperamental little prick who i kind of want to see kicked down the length of the pitch.

there are very few players who are worth that amount of money and, as it stands, sterling isn't one of them.

just you wait
underrated :: roberto firmino

a few years ago, when arsenal splashed 42 million pounds for mesut özil, everyone was quick to ridicule him when he didn't immediately perform in the premier league. no one mocks him now. the fact is that the english league is incredibly tough, with more games and more physicality than other european leagues, in particular the stylish spanish la liga. it can, and in özil's case did, take time to adjust.

although he plays in a different position, i'm firmly convinced that liverpool's prize acquisition this year, roberto firmino, is in the same camp. he seemed baffled at everything at first, unable to figure out how to work his elfish magic among the orcs of the english game. but as the season has worn on, he's done nothing but improve and i'm of the opinion that he isn't done yet. it helps, of course, that jurgen klopp seems to be a much better motivator than his predecessor brendan rogers, but i think that, like özil, he's not taking his new adventure lightly. a year or so from now, i think that it's entirely possible that his critics will be feasting on their hastily chosen words in the same way özil's are now.

overrated :: john stones

this one really isn't his fault, because the young englishman is a fine defender and is only going to grow in that role. but he's far from flawless, so when rumours abounded that chelsea were willing to pay [and possibly still are] 40 million pounds to pry him away from everton, it's kind of hard not to wonder who's doing these valuations. like the tiny, whiny sterling, stones is a victim of the sort of speculation that keeps crashing the stock market- paying for the player people think he can be rather than the player he is.

it says something that already, pundits are preparing english fans for the fact that, while their team at the euro this year may be an offensive dream team, their defense will be what sees them bounced from the competition before it gets down to its proverbial short and curlies. stones will be at the heart of that defense.

go in peace, john stones, i've nothing against you, but for 40 million pounds, a defender should be shooting lasers out his eyes.

"oh don't worry, i'll just sit here by myself, i don't need any help..."
underrated :: ashley williams

i'm personally of the opinion that the reason ashley williams doesn't receive more attention is because swansea are quietly conducting some sort of backroom rumour campaign that he's secretly a crack addict, or that he likes to set fires, or basically anything that could make him look less attractive to other teams. the swans have had a forgettable season and no one would rather forget it than i, but the only reason they've kept their heads above water is their team captain and defensive stalwart williams. there have been games where it's looked like he's been on the pitch by himself and while others on the team have rallied more recently, williams continues to be the swans st. peter: the rock on which their stadium/ temple is built.

former man united player and current commentator/ observer rio ferdinand has tweeted as recently as this week that he can't believe that no top-level teams have come to pinch williams away. there were rumours that arsenal were interested and while nothing seems to have come of that, it's remarkable because arsène wenger normally treats players 30 and over like a carton of milk a week past its expiry date. the idea that he'd even consider signing someone of williams age [31] is likely to be a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

i'm looking forward to seeing him anchor the welsh national team at the euro this year, because i think that, while gareth bale may shine as the goal scorer, people may end up admiring the team's defensive prowess just as much.

overrated :: almost everyone on chelsea

well, i've dealt with costa separately, but let me say this: the spoiled, childish behaviour of chelsea players who wanted a change of managers eventually made me feel sorry for jose mourinho. goddamn you all to hell for making me feel sorry for jose mourinho. the remarkable turnaround once he left made it way too obvious that the rumour was true: the team preferred to lose than to win for him.

the antichrist should not be this lovable
look, i'm sure, nay, i know that mourinho is a dick's dick. he's a blowhard and an egotistical turd who thinks much too highly of himself and refuses to show respect or deference to anyone. [except for west bromwich albion manager tony pulis, and their bromance is kind of adorable, even though it pains me to say that.] but the way things work is that you're supposed to go out and earn your six figure per week salary by putting on the best display that you can, no matter what you think of the boss. millions of people go to work hating their boss every day and they don't get to engage in some sort of cringe-worthy work to rule campaign. they live with it and hope it changes, because that's how working life just is.

any group of players willing to flip off their fans for months by refusing to play to their capacity are a bunch of jerks. and the fact that they've been playing so much better since he left just makes their jerkiness all the more apparent.

underrated :: willian

so it turns out, not every chelsea player is like a human embodiment of the ebola virus. week after week, while his teammates were choosing to suck, willian was showing up and putting in a strong shift. every. single. game. was that because he was the sole remaining player who loved jose? maybe. but it's not like he's gotten weaker under new manager guus hiddink. he's simply kept on going, doing a fine and reliable job, every time he's put on the field.

"let me show you how it's done"
the man deserves better. i don't say that only because i'm uncomfortable with the fact there's a chelsea player i actually like and, even worse, respect [although it's a factor], but because i think he deserves to play with people who are going to accept that they're getting paid exceedingly well to do a job and that they better damn well do it. that said, given the behaviour of a lot of players in recent years, i think he might have to change careers to find that sort of environment.

so that's my list. well, it's part of my list. i could conceivably continue with a list just along this theme, but i think this is [possibly more than] enough. it pains me to say that formerly beautiful arsenal striker olivier giroud has become overrated in the man candy department since he's chosen to sprout some sort of weird fungus on his face. [see above. i personally think he's missing his bromantic buddy mathieu debuchy, who was loaned out by arsenal in january. i suspect that both of them will leave this summer and i sincerely hope that they will end up in the same place, where they can live happily ever after.] underrated in that department is southampton's gorgeous graziano pellè, who shows the world what a beard looks like when it's done properly. love the teddy boy 'do up top, the molten dark eyes... hell, what's not to love?

the fact is that once you start to look at the world of professional sport, you're quickly going to come face to face with the realisation that some people are getting more credit than they deserve, while others get far less. which means that professional sport is just like every other profession, just with more money and more biting. 

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