2017-18 Premier League DARTS, Week 15: Arsenal-United, and the midfield dynamic that defined it

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Paul Pogba and Aaron Ramsey battle during Manchester United’s 3-1 win at Arsenal. (Getty)
Paul Pogba and Aaron Ramsey battle during Manchester United’s 3-1 win at Arsenal. (Getty)

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 …

It might not turn out to be the game of the season. That’s a designation best left for April or May. But the mere fact that those four words were so prevalent and so irresistible on Saturday afternoon and evening told you all you needed to know about Manchester United’s trip to North London this past weekend.

They spilled out of mouths before Arsenal-United had even reached the hour mark. Because many of those moths were agape. Eyes were glazed. Heads spun.

Soccer can be dull sometimes. It can also bamboozle us all. Saturday’s late Premier League kickoff did just that in the best possible way.

Arsenal-United was so wildly entertaining that it’s the exclusive subject of our Week 15 DARTS column. It did not monopolize the weekend’s excitement. But it was that good. It was stuffed with quality, curious decisions, countless twists, and controversy. It lacked late drama, but for about 85 minutes, it was fascinating.

Its essential element was a midfield give-and-take that coursed through the match, touching almost every key moment. One of the many was United’s third goal. We’ll begin there, then work backwards, then retrace our steps for a full-circle review of an astounding 90 minutes of football.

1. The Aaron Ramsey Conundrum, part 1

We’ll begin our journey with the ball at Aaron Ramsey’s feet, just over midfield on the Arsenal left. We’ll begin with his flick to Mesut Ozil, and his dart by Paul Pogba. With him as the second-most advanced Arsenal player on the pitch. Because it’s the space that he vacated – the space that he so often vacates – through which United broke for its devastating third:

It’s the fundamental Aaron Ramsey Conundrum. The conundrum that makes him so difficult to appraise as a player. That space is space which Ramsey needs to vacate to be who he is. But it’s space that often seems to be Arsenal’s Achilles’ Heel.

It’s space that Arsene Wenger has never quite figured out how to fill to securely enable Ramsey’s adventurousness. The Welsh midfielder is a regular penalty box visitor. His visits are a key facet of Arsenal’s attack. They had United chasing shadows on Saturday.

But without a proper defensive midfield partner with “back-line shield” at the top of his job description, Ramsey’s intermittent absences in that area are a key facet of Arsenal’s vulnerability. They were just that on Saturday as well.

This is the give-and-take. It’s present in every tactical plan. Every manager attempts to minimize defensive risk while maximizing potential attacking rewards.

It was especially present on Saturday, and Ramsey might be its poster boy. The risk is inherent in his game. But his performance against United also showed just why those risks are worth taking.

2. The Aaron Ramsey Conundrum, part 2

Ramsey has attacking freedom because of runs and touches like this – and don’t you dare try to argue the lay-off for Alexandre Lacazette wasn’t intentional:

His movement gave United’s midfield fits all evening. Watch Paul Pogba on the goal. Rather than track Ramsey, he points as if to instruct a teammate to pick up the run. But no teammate was available. Marcos Rojo was preoccupied with Lacazette. Pogba’s acknowledgement was tardy.

These miscommunications and disjointed marking schemes dogged United. And they really should have been punished more than once.

3. United’s gaping midfield holes

United’s carelessness was baffling. Its openness was stunning. Was that really a Jose Mourinho-coached team?

Perhaps we should credit Mourinho for finally coming out of his shell in a big game. After all, that’s what made the 90 minutes as entertaining as they were. Mourinho allowed us to indulge.

But some of the negligent defending was inexplicable. At 2-0 in the 27th minute, how was it so simple for Arsenal to find Mesut Ozil at the top of the penalty box?

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

The answer, in part, is a midfield give-and-take similar to Arsenal’s. Look at the positioning of Pogba and Lingard above. United’s threat on the counter in its 5-3-2 is predicated on those two galloping forward. Their gallops, and their high pressing, left gaps in midfield. They left Nemanja Matic outnumbered.

In the 55th minute, for example, Pogba burst forward, but the Red Devils couldn’t connect their initial outlet pass. The ball came right back at them, and Arsenal easily streamed forward through Ozil:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

United’s performance was also littered with poor individual defensive awareness, some apparent fatigue, and maybe even downright laziness. It was exacerbated by Arsenal’s fluidity and unpredictability. But its tactical vulnerability was shocking.

It’s easy to refute any critical analysis of United with the goals. They were a byproduct of this aggressiveness. But if finishing randomness had favored Arsenal, the narrative could and would have been very different.

It also could have been very different if not for the mistakes. You know the ones we’re talking about.

4. The Arsenal mistakes

And that’s all they were: mistakes. Individual errors. No structural flaw led to United’s first two goals.

The second was about a strange Shkodran Mustafi bout with one-footedness. He had evaded Lingard, and a simple left-footed pass to Granit Xhaka was on. Instead, Mustafi chose to run around the ball to use the outside of his right foot. In doing so, he slowed, and exposed the ball. His body was no longer in between it and the United player. That enabled Lingard’s clean tackle, and United’s break.

The first was about a similarly faulty Laurent Koscielny decision. All the Frenchman had to do was play a short pass to Alexis Sanchez. The sequence would have been innocuous. Instead, it stands as an example of Pogba’s gravitational pull.

5. Paul Pogba’s orbit

After Koscielny’s giveaway, Arsenal scrambled back well. It had halted the momentum of United’s break. It had gotten men behind the ball. Had it escaped with a shot from 20 yards, with at least one defender in between shooter and goalkeeper, it likely would have evaded danger.

(Screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra)

The problem was the identity of the potential shooter. Pogba provokes panic. Not one, not two, not three, but four Arsenal players rushed out to him as if he were a dead-eye three-point shooter in a one-possession basketball game. Pogba made the extra pass, and United led.

(Screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra)

6. Goals change games, but …

The million-dollar question stemming from Saturday is the “what if.” What if Arsenal hadn’t conceded the two early goals? How would the game have been different? There’s a tendency to assume it would have been drastically so.

But “not at all” is a very valid answer, too. Because there were warning signs as early as the second minute. United played into Romelu Lukaku’s feet, and there was that space again:

The red line connects Arsenal’s central midfield pair. (Original screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra; Illustration: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
The red line connects Arsenal’s central midfield pair. (Original screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra; Illustration: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Mustafi’s post-mistake injury changed the tactical complexion of the game because Arsenal went to a back four. But Arsenal intended to impose itself on the game anyway. It likely would have dominated the ball anyway. The logical adjustment at that stage would have been United’s. Weirdly, it never really came.

7. The half-hearted United press

Two goals to the good, away from home, against a high-octane attack. Sounds like a classic recipe for a Mourinho bus-park, right?

That’s what we all assumed. And it’s almost as if some of Mourinho’s players assumed likewise. But not all of them did. Some seemed conflicted. Somewhere along the line, there was clearly a plan to press Arsenal. As late as the 53rd minute, it was still in effect:

(Screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Screenshot: NBC Sports Live Extra)

But during the 40 minutes either side of halftime that were bossed by Arsenal, the United press was often half-hearted. It lacked conviction. There was confusion. In the 47th minute, when United cleared long, Pogba went to initiate the press, but quickly realized his teammates weren’t following. He was livid:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

There were several examples of token pressure that didn’t really bother Arsenal, and instead left United’s midfield three disjointed. There was never really a defined structure to those three. It was all very un-Mourinho-like.

And yet it all turned out to be irrelevant thanks to a certain superhuman Spaniard.

8. DAVID DE GEA (and a mailbag question)

There’s not much else to say, other than that De Gea was insane. So we’ll sneak in this week’s mailbag question, which comes from Daniel Rapaport (@Daniel_Rapaport): Compared to other great goalies at their prime, just how good is David De Gea right now?

The best part about this question is that it’s the question. In other words, the question is no longer De Gea vs. Thibaut Courtois or Hugo Lloris. De Gea is head and shoulders (and man-bun) above his Premier League peers. He’s the best goalkeeper in the world. His only challenger for that title is the currently-injured Manuel Neuer. (Those two are difficult to compare because of their stylistic differences.)

Historical comparisons are also extremely difficult because the game – and athletes’ capabilities in general – have evolved. Picking apart De Gea vs. Edwin Van Der Sar, or De Gea vs. Peter Schmeichel, isn’t all that useful. But De Gea’s impact so far this season measures right up with that of the greats. He’s been heroic. Saturday was his most memorable performance yet.

9. Ander Herrera’s stabilizing effect

Of De Gea’s Premier League record-tying 14 saves, 12 came in the first 65 minutes. In the 67th, Mourinho introduced Ander Herrera. Even after Pogba was dismissed in the 74th – and yes, the red was deserved – Herrera stabilized the game.

For 65 minutes, the defensive activity and attentiveness of United’s midfield three wasn’t sufficient. They left space in between themselves and the back three, and allowed Arsenal to connect passes in central areas 20-30 yards from goal. Herrera’s unwavering energy put an end to that:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

In fact, in a backwards sense, the red card stabilized United. Mourinho replaced Lingard with Darmian. The Red Devils sat in a more defined, balanced 5-3-1. They rotated well, and flew out to the top of the box to block shots.

But the fact that this desperate defending felt like an improvement was telling. For the latter 70 minutes, despite its occasional counter, United really was overmatched.

10. The xG debate

The debate over the utility of Expected Goals has raged anew in recent weeks. It’s a debate plagued by misunderstanding. There’s little use in rehashing it. If you’re interested, here’s an explainer.

But it’s worth plopping Saturday’s xG map in here and contextualizing it. Because, well … WOW:

One of the many arguments against xG is the Who cares?! argument. United scored three actual goals. Arsenal scored one. Why does it matter how many Expected Goals they had?

The answer is that it doesn’t! It doesn’t matter! Especially if you don’t want to care.

In a postgame, retrospective analytical context, xG is simply a gauge of chance creation. It’s a form of quantifying how many goalscoring opportunities a team manufactured and conceded. Arsenal’s astronomical xG number doesn’t detract from United’s victory. It just validates all the incredulous thoughts you had throughout those whirlwind 90 minutes. It’s the numerical version of your “I can’t believe Arsenal hasn’t scored!” exclamations. And it confirms the conclusion we’ve come to: that United really was fortunate to come away with three points. And that Arsenal, on the balance of play, probably deserved more than it got.

Previous DARTS: Week 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13

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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 henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.