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 …
Arsene Wenger is preposterous.
It’s a shame that this column has to lead with him. It’s a shame that another Super Sunday has ended with the public having to pay Wenger any attention, just as it’s a travesty that Arsenal is still paying him money to mismanage its team. However, the most infuriating moment of the weekend occurred not on a football pitch, but rather when Wenger stepped up to a microphone after his side’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City.
“Once again, the referee made the decision today, with a soft penalty and an offside goal,” he told Sky Sports. “But we are used to it when we come here. Last year we had two offside goals against us. I feel the referees don’t work enough, because their level drops every season at the moment. And overall it’s unacceptable.”
Never mind that his side was outclassed in every way imaginable. Never mind that he has drained his club of legitimacy, and turned it into the least relevant of the Big Six, oscillating between pesky top-four contender and laughingstock. Arsene Wenger, excuse-maker extraordinaire, thinks referees are the problem.
Oh, and Raheem Sterling’s diving. That too.
“I believe it was no penalty,” he said of City’s second goal. “It was a provoked penalty by Sterling. We know that he dives well, he does that very well.”
Never mind that it absolutely was not a dive. Never mind that the accusation is completely unfounded and irresponsible. Never mind that City could have been 3-0 or 4-0 by the time Nacho Monreal clattered into Sterling anyway.
The absurdity of Arsene Wenger is unceasing, and with every week it seems more likely that it is blinding. Blinding the 68-year-old Frenchman to his own faults, of which there are many.
Wenger is the worst kind of arrogant. He is perpetually determined to find fault in others, and equally dedicated to defending the illusion of his own flawlessness. He’s a stark contrast to his opposite number on Sunday, who offered up a much more realistic view of the game at the Etihad.
“The penalty was a penalty,” Pep Guardiola said of City’s second. “The offside was offside,” he admitted of the third.
“But we won because we were better.”
A lot better.
In every phase of the game.
That’s what makes City so indomitable at the moment.
1. Manchester City’s double-edged sword
City is unbeaten in the Premier League because of a dilemma it presents to opponents that can be boiled down into very simple terms. It is the league’s best team with the ball, and the league’s best team without it. And it is darn near impossible to set up an 11 to combat both of those aspects of City’s brilliance.
Arsenal, in a way, split the difference. Wenger opted for an attacking right side, with the striker-winger-midfielder triangle of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey offering Arsenal’s main forward threat. He opted for a defensive left side, with Granit Xhaka in the middle flanked by Alex Iwobi. The Gunners put on the occasional high press, but also settled into a 5-4-1 without the ball. It was a rational, measured approach from Wenger. It also didn’t work.
Because when Arsenal played high, it might as well have been sending an invitation to City’s devastating counter. But when it sat back, and tried to play on the counter itself, it couldn’t.
This is the dilemma that City enforces so well. It pins teams back with its purposeful possession and spacing. By doing so, it also positions itself to counterpress when it loses the ball. And, crucially, it prevents an opponent from preparing for that moment when possession changes feet.
Twenty seconds before City’s first goal, Nacho Monreal cut out a pass. But look at Arsenal’s spacing when he did:
There are no outlets. Sure enough, Iwobi – in the team for his pace and work rate – gave the ball away seconds after Arsenal had won it, and the Gunners remained hemmed in. Seconds after that, Kevin De Bruyne was firing at goal:
City chased down the rebound, recycled the ball, and had another go. This time, De Bruyne’s shot whizzed past Petr Cech. But it was enabled by the counterpress, and Arsenal’s inefficiency in that initial phase of transition.
The alternative, though, is a less compact defensive shape, which is the equivalent of self-destruction against such a high-flying attacking outfit. So opposing managers have to pick their poison. Both poisons – and all mixtures of them – are equally deadly.
2. No, starting Lacazette was not the answer
Arsenal fans second-guessed Wenger’s decision to leave Alexandre Lacazette on the bench after the French striker came on as a substitute and sliced City’s lead in half. The one legitimate gripe might be that he should have been in the 11 in place of Ozil, with Sanchez wide. But a team with all three of Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette would have had nowhere near enough defensive discipline to cope with City. You can find a more detailed discussion of the reasoning here.
3. Yes, the third goal was offside, but …
Arsenal’s defending on the play was horrendous. Laurent Koscielny was far more at fault than the assistant referee. The Gunners’ defensive line was comically jagged. And the pass from David Silva to Gabriel Jesus was easily preventable, if only Koscielny, Xhaka and Hector Bellerin hadn’t moped about with their hands up in the air for a good two or three seconds.
It’s truly amateurish stuff. And it goes back to the excuse-making. Wenger and his team can continue in search of external explanations for their own failings. Or perhaps they could look in the mirror, recognize the recurring nature of them, and do something about it.
4. The day Chelsea’s midfield finally shaped up
N’Golo Kante returned to the Chelsea team for Sunday’s clash with Manchester United, and was influential in a 1-0 victory. But he wasn’t the only Blues midfielder who was. Tiemoue Bakayoko had his coming out party against United, and played a crucial role in Chelsea’s dominance.
The 23-year-old had endured a shaky start to his Stamford Bridge career. He had not looked comfortable on the ball, and had struggled to harness his physicality in a useful manner. On Saturday, he conquered the latter issue, and provided Chelsea with near-ideal midfield equilibrium.
Bakayoko’s foremost quality is his running, both with and without the ball. He covers ground with purpose, whether it’s to break up attacks or contribute to them. His ability to do so allowed him to form a midfield wall alongside Kante and Cesc Fabregas while also joining Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard up front.
That last point is critical. Antonio Conte has fiddled with his formation through the first three months of this season, but hasn’t been able to replicate last year’s exquisitely balanced 3-4-3. A similar shape sans Nemanja Matic has been lacking in midfield. Most iterations of a 3-5-2 have given insufficient support to the front two.
But Bakayoko provided the best of both worlds on Sunday. He exploded forward when opportunities arose to lend that support, and made key attacking contributions without even touching the ball. In the seventh minute, with one of United’s three center backs (Eric Bailly) having followed Eden Hazard into midfield, Bakayoko sprung forward to occupy another one of the three, Chris Smalling. That left Morata one-on-one with Phil Jones in the box, and resulted in a disallowed own goal:
One of several similar sequences led to the Chelsea goal. Bakayoko’s dart forward drew the attention of Smalling, this time leaving Morata free:
The main difficulty of cracking a back three is creating overloads. When the defense has an extra stay-at-home center back, exploitable space is harder to come by. But Bakayoko solved that problem, and created odd-man situations by joining the front two. He was a big reason Chelsea was superior on both sides of the ball.
5. Your weekly reminder to hold off on the Man United overreactions
But this time, it’s a different type of warning. Over the past month, this column has ranged from skeptical of to harsh on Jose Mourinho and United. The point was that results alone were a bit deceiving.
But it’s important to keep in mind that many, if not all of United’s underwhelming performances have been put on without Paul Pogba. Pogba is a top-five player in the Premier League, and a unique all-round talent. United isn’t and can’t be a complete, fully functioning unit without him. His absence has sort of been lost in the shuffle.
Mourinho actually made that exact case recently. “I think it’s my fault, because I should cry every week about our injuries,” he said, “and remind everybody day after day or press conference after press conference.”
He shouldn’t, and didn’t need to address the issue in such a sarcastic manner. But he does have a point. Let’s hold off on branding the title race over until we see what United looks like once the French midfielder returns.
6. The Liverpool counter that will leave Slaven Bilic unemployed
If reports are to be believed, Slaven Bilic is a goner at West Ham. Heck, by the time you’re reading this, the axe might have already fallen. And if it has, or if it does, Bilic’s reign will have ended in fitting fashion.
If there is one inexcusable offense that a manager can commit, it is a lack of set-piece preparation. And in particular, the concession of a goal following your own corner kick. They are so easily preventable, the problems foreseeable, the solutions simple. Yet when Liverpool cleared Manuel Lanzini’s corner on Saturday, there were Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, the Reds’ two most dangerous players, free to receive the ball and rampage up field:
It was embarrassingly easy. And while no one moment is grounds for a firing, it might just be the straw the breaks the proverbial camel’s back. Bilic has been an enigmatic camel. But this was a particularly heavy straw. And given what we’ve seen from Bilic this year, it wouldn’t have been the last.
7. What is going on at Burnley?
In other words … Seventh place. Level with Liverpool and Arsenal on 19 points. How?
Burnley is one of the most fascinating statistical conundrums in the Premier League. It finished 16th last season, but was the only team in the bottom half to overperform its Expected Goal tally. That led to relegation forecasts that presumed regression.
Instead, Sean Dyche has cackled in all of our faces. His side’s 2017-18 xG overperformance has been even more flagrant. Through just 11 games, its Expected Goal differential is -8.5, one of the worst in the Premier League. But its actual goal differential? Plus-1.
There’s an ongoing debate in the analytics community about the sustainability of Burnley’s form, and about whether Dyche’s teams do something that xG models don’t pick up or account for. My stance is to hold firm, and to continue to expect regression. But that’s becoming a less defensible position by the week.
xG map for Southampton – Burnley. Jeez. pic.twitter.com/274dlImScn
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) November 4, 2017
8. The giant facepalm that is the battle for seventh
The competition for the title of “best of the rest” is wide open. That it is so open is embarrassing for the 14 teams that make up “the rest.” Given the resources at the disposal of some of them, it shouldn’t be.
The influx of Premier League TV money has been terribly misused by much of the league. Teams that have the financial means to seemingly compete on the fringes of the top six have decided to use it to throw millions of additional Pounds at big-name players, rather than sprinkle them around the club to improve physical and informational infrastructure and decision-making processes. As a result, many have missed on critical signings, and the gap between haves and have-nots is as wide as ever.
Soccer writer James Yorke had a good Twitter thread on this topic over the weekend. Rather than plagiarizing it, we’ll direct you to it. And we’ll move on …
9. Recalibrating our projected table after three months
As we’ve done prior to the two previous international breaks, it’s time to amend our Premier League table projections. As always, the number in parentheses is the difference between preseason predicted finish and current projection.
1. Manchester City (-)
2. Tottenham (+1)
3. Manchester United (-1)
4. Chelsea (-)
5. Liverpool (-)
6. Arsenal (-)
7. Watford (+9)
8. Southampton (-1)
9. Leicester (+3)
10. Burnley (+9)
11. Newcastle (+2)
12. Everton (-4)
13. Stoke City (-2)
14. Huddersfield (+6)
15. West Brom (-1)
16. West Ham (-7)
17. Crystal Palace (-7)
18. Brighton (-1)
19. Bournemouth (-4)
20. Swansea (-2)
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.