Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …
A short intro this week, for a slightly abbreviated 10th edition of this column. Because after a very eventful nine weeks, the Premier League’s 10th was relatively uninspiring.
It featured one top-of-the-table clash that drew eyeballs, intrigue, and at times ire. Tottenham Hotspur’s trip to Old Trafford has been discussed at length ever since it kicked off the weekend.
Most of what followed, however, fell right in line with expectations. Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal each won by a lone goal, but all three victories felt comfortable. Elsewhere, Liverpool beat Huddersfield, Southampton was boring, and Everton was bad. What’s new?
But it’s impossible for 810 minutes of soccer to equate to boredom. There are certainly talking points. Let’s get to them. And let’s begin with Manchester United.
1. The glaring hole in Tottenham’s attack
Rather, let’s begin with the forward line United shut down, and the piece it was missing. Because that piece was a massive one. It’s simplistic and obvious to say Spurs aren’t the same team without Harry Kane. But it’s worth investigating why.
Kane has been lauded for his goal scoring, but his excellence touches all phases of the game. He can play with his back to goal. He can stretch a back line. He can hold the ball under pressure, bring teammates into the flow of an attack, and open up space for them with the diversity of his movement.
Arguably no striker in the world can match Kane in every single one of these departments. Nobody in Tottenham’s squad can replicate half of what he does. So with Kane out of the lineup, Spurs aren’t just less proficient in front of goal, they struggle to get there.
Tottenham had similar problems around this time last year. Kane missed a month, and his absence was the source of acute pain at White Hart Lane. On Saturday in Manchester, Spurs suffered from a similar, and now familiar ailment.
Heung-Min Son started up top, with Dele Alli playing off of him. But Son is only effective through the middle when he can run off the shoulders of defenders. United played three of them, and played a relatively deep defensive line, which prevented Son from doing so. There was no space in behind, and rarely gaps in between the back three.
So to receive the ball – to contribute to Tottenham’s buildup – the Korean forward either had to wander wide, almost all the way to the sideline, or play facing his own goal. The former was only occasionally effective, and the latter just isn’t in Son’s arsenal. He tried to fill Kane’s shoes in this regard, but just couldn’t.
To break down a team such as United, which hasn’t conceded a goal at home yet this season, Tottenham needed its striker to be a target, or an outlet. When its defenders and midfielders surveyed the field, Son was neither. He was often bracketed by two of the back three, and struggled to win individual duels when one-on-one.
This isn’t Son’s fault. It’s just a natural side effect of having an insanely talented player with whom a team has become accustomed to playing. Mauricio Pochettino threw an ill-equipped replacement into Kane’s position against the best defensive team in the league because he had no other choice. Kane will be back soon, and all will be well. But his hamstring injury, suffered late in last Sunday’s win over Liverpool, proved costly.
2. Let’s talk about Jose Mourinho
It proved a fortunate break for United, too. Jose Mourinho’s system change and somewhat conservative approach were vindicated by Spurs’ inability to muster much more than long-range shots.
But they were also vindicated, of course, by Anthony Martial’s winner.
The goal provided a convenient plot twist for Mourinho, who has already come under fire for similar decisions during the first two-plus months of the campaign. But it shouldn’t necessarily change the narrative.
Yes, this is the part where we caution against overreactions.
United has played two games against the top six (and zero with a full-strength 11). Its performances have merited roughly two points, give or take one. They’ve yielded four, and yes, if United keeps up this pace and takes 20 points from 10 matches against the Big Six, it is a good bet to win the league. But that’s unlikely. Martial’s goal didn’t significantly adjust the likelihood. Mourinho has yet to prove he can win a title in a league with five comparable opponents, and there are still valid reasons to doubt his ability to do so.
3. Hopefully Mourinho isn’t reading this …
Doubt him at your own peril. You run the risk of getting a good old shushing.
Never disrespect the boss again. pic.twitter.com/eNATmqqOsp
— José Mourinho-MUFC (@Utd_JM) October 28, 2017
“Some people speak too much,” Mourinho explained after the match.
OK, Jose. Whatever you say.
4. Everton was different; the result was the same
Hours after this column published a week ago, Ronald Koeman got the axe at Everton. Current under-23s boss David Unsworth took charge of the team while the club searches for a permanent replacement, and the Toffees showed few signs of immediate improvement in a 2-0 loss to Leicester on Sunday.
But that’s not to say nothing changed. Unsworth has ditched the back three, brought Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas back into the frame, and went with Tom Davies in midfield alongside Idrissa Gana. It appears to be a desperate attempt to introduce pace and athleticism into a team that was and is sorely lacking it.
But it also highlights Everton’s dilemma. To pick a team that wasn’t egregiously slow, Unsworth left Gylfi Sigurdsson and Morgan Schneiderlin on the bench, and Davy Klaassen out of the squad altogether. His new-look 11 was quicker. But it also frankly just wasn’t that good.
So the new manager, whoever it is, will have to decide on the best way to get the most out of this self-contradictory squad. Is it to squeeze the 11 best players into a lineup and pray that they adapt to one another? Or is it to craft a more coherent lineup by benching some of those 11?
Another semi-urgent question to consider: Who would even want the unenviable task of making that decision?
5. Seriously, would anybody want the Everton job?
It has all the makings of a reputation destroyer. The fallacy of the £140 million summer still unfairly inflates expectations. And the renovations will take time. A lot of time. The squad needs to be gutted and rebuilt with a sturdier, more sensible core. In the meantime, a new manager will likely have to tell many of his highest-paid players that they will not be receiving regular minutes.
And a renovation would take even longer for any of the in-vogue pressing coaches that the rumor mill has, at one point or another, placed atop Everton’s wish list. Pressing systems require athleticism. Everton doesn’t have much of it. It’s unclear what type of system Everton’s squad does fit. It’s also unclear what type of coach would have the self-confidence and patience to find out.
6. Telling xG map of the week
I will ride the “Crystal Palace is actually decent” train until a voice comes over the intercom to tell me it is out of service.
xG map for Palace – West Ham. There's a lot of ground to make up, but Palace are not playing like a relegated side right now. pic.twitter.com/0du5SkQql8
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) October 28, 2017
7. The dark side of Troy Deeney
As long as we laud Troy Deeney’s passion and refreshing honesty, we have to call him out when he goes too far. On Saturday, he went way, way too far. There’s no place for this in the Premier League, in soccer, or in any sport: