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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 …
The sport of soccer is littered with luck. It infests every Premier League weekend in the form of deflections, errant whistles, opponent mistakes, quick-twitch linesman flags, and so much more. It decides games and title races. It saves jobs and snatches them away. It’s everywhere. The question is whether there’s a pattern to it.
Such a notion would oppose the very definition of the word. The whole idea of luck is that it’s random. That it’s chance. That it’s outside of human control.
But there’s a counter notion that “sports luck” is different. There’s the cliché that players and teams “create their own luck.” It’s used to assign credit for fluky occurrences; to explain seemingly undeserved results.
And in soccer, oftentimes it’s true.
It’s not that on-field actions tilt the balanced scale of chance. It’s not that they undermine the concept of randomness. It’s that teams can frame luck. They can coerce it into action. If a given team never progresses the ball into its attacking half, luck can’t gift it a goal – only an opponent’s inability to score one. On the other hand, if a team is constantly on the attack, it will get the benefit of more dodgy penalties or 50/50 offside calls, simply because there will be more 50/50 decisions for referees to make.
Which brings us to Arsenal. Two weeks ago, we lambasted Arsene Wenger for moaning about referees after his Gunners had been dominated by Manchester City. This past weekend, they were on the other side of the argument. They benefited from three questionable calls in a derby victory over Tottenham.
But just as they had deserved to lose at the Etihad, they deserved to win Saturday. They weren’t lucky because they were good, per se. But luck was the difference between Arsenal goals and a stalemate, rather than between a stalemate and Tottenham goals, because Arsenal made specific plays that forced lady luck’s hand.
1. Arsenal’s opener was about more than a debatable foul
It’s impossible to talk about Shkodran Mustafi’s header without his likely offside position. And it’s impossible to talk about the entire play without the foul that enabled it. But how about the actions that led to the foul?
Fifteen seconds before it, Christian Eriksen was leading a 4-v-4 Tottenham break. About seven seconds before it, after Arsenal had cleared a Ben Davies cross, Mesut Ozil received the ball on the edge of his own penalty area with two Spurs players bearing down on him. The foul – and thus the goal, and the controversy – doesn’t happen if Ozil doesn’t have the composure and vision to break Tottenham’s counterpress:
And, of course, it doesn’t happen if Aaron Ramsey doesn’t put a 60-yard ball right on a tightly-marked Alexis Sanchez’s head. Arsenal was tactically and technically better than Spurs on the day. That’s why the contentious moments arose as they did.
2. OK, but was it a foul?
Let’s first clarify a few things: First, Davinson Sanchez’s play on the ball was clean. Second, the shirt-tug that Mike Dean indicated he saw was nonexistent. The contact that should be in question is between Davinson’s arms and Alexis’ upper body. There’s an outstretched left, then a right forearm, both of which impede the Arsenal attacker.
By IFAB definition, “a direct free kick is awarded if a player impedes an opponent with contact.” The issue is that contact similar to the Sanchez-on-Sanchez contact is rarely called, because it is rarely followed immediately by a successful challenge. It therefore rarely has more than a minimal impact on the play.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be called. Defenders get away with hand-checks and arm-bars all the time. They don’t necessarily bring opponents to the ground, but they do slow their momentum, and prevent them from getting off clean shots or cutting passes. In this case, Davinson’s arm contact allowed him to make the clean tackle; it allowed him to win the ball without committing a foul. So does that, by extension, make the initial contact punishable?
Uh … Probably? Again, there’s no clear answer.
3. OK, back to Ozil
Arsenal’s man of the match was excellent. On both sides of the ball. His defensive performance was certainly the more surprising of the two, and it might have even been the more important.
There were two keys to Arsenal’s clean sheet. One was winning both first and second balls when Tottenham played direct to Harry Kane. The Gunners had mixed results in that department, but were never punished for their mistakes. Kane’s hamstrung mobility helped.
The other key was compensating for Tottenham’s 3-v-2 advantage in midfield. The commitment and positional discipline of Ozil and Sanchez made that possible:
The elephant in the room, of course, is the criticism that this side of Ozil’s game often takes. He’s been called lazy, lackadaisical and soft. A lot of it is unfair. However, it’s not totally unfounded. The German playmaker isn’t exactly the most physically imposing player. He’s not one to consistently bite at the ankles of opponents.
But he doesn’t necessarily have to do that to be effective defensively. That’s the thing. He wasn’t flying into tackle after tackle on Saturday. He did, though, take excellent pressing angles to cut off passes to Tottenham midfielders behind him. Watch how, as he goes to close down Jan Vertonghen, he first checks his shoulder to see where Eriksen is – to see what passing lane he needs to block:
When Ozil and Sanchez remain vigilant in this manner, Arsenal’s press can be legitimately good … and perhaps Arsenal can climb back into the top four?
4. OK, enough about Arsenal … Paul Pogba is back
And he’s so, so important. He’s a top-five player in the Premier League. And he’s irreplaceable in Manchester United’s midfield because he can do soooooo many things on a football pitch.
Nominally, he’s a defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. But we’d be better served calling it a 4-1-P-3-1. The P stands for Pogba. He can join either of the 1s or the 3 when necessary. He’s the deep-lying playmaker who single-handedly cycles the ball from sideline to sideline:
He’s also the second striker who gets in the box to occupy defenders …
… and score goals:
He’s basically everything in between as well. Not much further analysis necessary. United is much better with its lone top-five player than without him.
5. Zlatan is back, too
Wait, what? Already? How?
Well, because… “Lions, they don’t recover like humans.”
6. The Alvaro Morata-Eden Hazard partnership
As the Men in Blazers would say, it’s the quintessential “talls and smalls” pairing. The Belgian and the Spaniard linked up in Chelsea’s Saturday thrashing of West Brom:
The only problem with the partnership is that it’s only been in place for 383 of a possible 1080 Premier League minutes so far this season. Hazard, who fractured his ankle on international duty in June, didn’t start in the league until Matchday 7, Sept. 30 against Manchester City. And 35 minutes into that clash, Morata pulled up with an injury. In fact, the two have still only gone 70-plus minutes together in three domestic games.
But when they have been on the field together, they’ve scored 1.64 goals per 90 between them. To contextualize that, only three players (Kane, Gabriel Jesus and Olivier Giroud) who played at least 250 Premier League minutes last season scored more than 0.75 goals per 90.
The Morata-Hazard sample size is still small, but playing together in a 3-5-2, Chelsea’s frontmen are off to a scorching-hot start.
7. Man City should have been down a man
City bullied Leicester, but it could have been oh so different. Two minutes in, the league leaders could have been down to 10 men. Vincent Kompany could have been off.
Rather, Vincent Kompany should have been off. The referee was likely fooled by John Stones’ proximity to the incident. But when the ball was played, Stones’ hips were facing up the field. Vardy was already running toward City’s goal. He was off to the races, and by the time he reached the ball would have been several strides clear of Stones. This was DOGSO – Denying of an Obvious Goal-Scoring Opportunity. It should have been a red card.
8. Unfortunately, City will be a man down for a while …
A crucial man down. Later in the first half, Stones strained his hamstring. He appeared to be in significant pain, and initial reports suggest the England international could be out six weeks.
A six-week absence would be a massive blow for City, for five reasons. First, with December the busiest month of the English football year, it could mean up to 12 or 13 matches on the sideline. Second, Stones has been arguably the best center back in the Premier League this season. Third, Kompany – the likely replacement – has lost a step. Fourth, he’s very injury-prone. And fifth, Eliaquim Mangala, City’s fourth option in the center of defense, is a liability.
If Manchester United were to sniff around the east side of town, it would smell opportunity – especially in the Manchester Derby on Dec. 9 at Old Trafford.
9. West Ham hired David Moyes, and …
Well, here’s Moyes after his debut, a 2-0 defeat at Watford:
“I always thought this was a big job. Some big players with big reputations disappointed me a lot. I thought they would show me more. They need to show me why they have got that reputation.”
Good to know Moyes is already working to build strong relationships with his players, just like he did so well at Sunderland.
Speaking of which …
10. Let’s check in on Sunderland
This is a Premier League column. But it’s always good to check in on the second tier. Down in the Championship … Oh … Oh no … Oh dear …
— Sunderland Echo SAFC (@sunechosafc) November 18, 2017
11. Send in your mailbag questions
We’re going to try a little something new here at DARTS. The final item of the column next week will be one of your questions – about the Premier League, ideally, but perhaps about other soccer or non-soccer topics if the question is compelling/entertaining/completely absurd.
Send in your questions to the email address below, or tweet them @HenryBushnell. If we get enough good ones on a consistent basis, this will stay as a regular feature.
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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.